The backdrop in the Democratic Primary for Shelby County District Attorney General includes the argument made by some that a higher level of racial sensitivity would improve the likelihood of substantive change in the office’s effectiveness in response to ongoing – and mounting – concerns about crime.
With early voting for the May 3 County primary already underway and continuing through April 28, a segment of a forum on Monday held by the Shelby County Democratic Party brought that issue center stage on the wings of a moderator’s question.
The setting was the Michael D. Rose Theatre on the University of Memphis campus. Three attorneys – Linda Harris, Steve Mulroy and Janika White – are vying for the opportunity to unseat incumbent DA Amy Weirich, who is unchallenged in the Republican Primary.
In response to questions from three moderators – Tennessee Radio Hall of Fame member Bev Johnson of WDIA, Katherine Burgess of The Commercial Appeal, and The New Tri-State Defender Associate Publisher/Executive Editor Karanja A. Ajanaku – the trio fielded a range of questions between opening and closing statements.
Toward the end of the forum, Johnson noted that district attorneys have “significant decision-making power and the decisions they make have a big impact on the community.” She then asked the candidates what impact they hoped to make on Memphis and Shelby County.
Pivoting off Johnson’s question, Ajanaku asked the forum’s lone follow-up:
“… To make better decisions with impact, some would say that the person who occupies the DA position needs to have a higher level of racial sensitivity. So, my question is, is there something that points to you as the one amongst the three of you who is most qualified to bring that higher level of sensitivity?”
With the order of response predetermined, Harris answered first.
Attorney Linda Harris
“So, several things … one, I grew up in South Memphis and I attended Hamilton High School. I never have lost touch with my community. I am connected. I know what that feels like. I have people who have been affected by the system … cousins, and even a brother who’s been arrested before. I understand what they feel. I’ve talked to the people who have been in prison and they told me about the trauma that they experienced and what that’s like coming back into this community.
“I’m a mother of two sons who have had experiences with the criminal justice system. And so all of this makes a difference on how I feel and my compassion. The reason that I started a program called the mass program was because of how my son was treated. And what I found when I started a program, working with youth is that if you tell them they can succeed … If you tell them and they believe.
“But if you tell them that they’re bad, if you continue to tell them over and over again, they’ll live out those expectations. But when you believe in them, you can make a difference. I’ve lived it. So, therefore I can be sensitive to those issues.”
Attorney Janika White
“Study after study has told us that when we lack diversity in our criminal justice system and our legal community in total, that we create disparity in every level of the system from bail to pleas that are offered to alternatives that are offered to sentencing. We create disproportionate outcomes and Black and brown people are affected the worst in our criminal justice system as it pertains to those disproportionate outcomes.
“At this current time, … only about 10 percent of the prosecutors that are prosecuting crime are Black or brown people … people of color when over 85 percent of the people that are being served in our criminal justice system are people of color. Representation does matter.
“It does matter. And I have been saying … I am from the community. I have been fighting for the community and I have been working in the community to make the changes that I’m talking about right now. But not only have I been in the community, working and fighting, I’ve been actually in the courtroom fighting the very injustices that we’re talking about … talking with families and clients, not them just telling me about it, but going through it with them and seeing that what I’m telling you works.
“It does work when I get a phone call from a client who’s come out of drug treatment and now they’ve been clean four and five and six years. When I have a client, who I sent to get mental illness treatment, and they come out and they say, ‘Ms. White, this is the best I’ve been in years since I was a teenager.’ These things I’m talking about do work. And I believe that we need the right person who can connect these connections to make it work and that’s me.
“I’ve been litigating cases in 201 Poplar and Juvenile Court … last year a Class A felony case that I did. I’ve been litigating in this system every single year for the last 22 years. I haven’t been stuck in some ivory tower. I’ve been in the courts and I’ve been knocking on doors. And I’ve been talking to people as a county commissioner.
“But is diversity and representation important? Absolutely it is important. I’ve always believed that. That’s why I’ve fought for it my entire career. As a civil rights lawyer for the Bill Clinton justice department, I did that.
“On the county commission, I fought for diversity and representation with the appointment of boards and commissions. In minority contracting, I was the person that scrutinized the makeup of county contractors to make sure they were diverse. And I would focus on that same thing in the DA’s office. I just did a press conference recently calling out the lack of diversity in the DA’s office, which is the first thing that I would fix on day one.
“Fortunately, in our county, we have pretty decent diversity and representation at the county level. Of the six countywide offices, the main ones, all but one are represented by African Americans, half are represented by women and there are no white males. But as important as that is, we should also be thinking about how is the day-to-day life of African-American young men and women gonna be helped by the criminal justice system.
“And we have to figure out who is the best person to actually take on (incumbent DA) Weirich in August. Who is the best person to actually implement systemic change once September 1 rolls around?
“County Mayor Lee Harris, Councilwoman Patrice Robinson, state Senator Ramesh Akbari, County Commissioner Van Turner (Jr.) and so many others think that I’m the right person. They didn’t ask me to step aside. They asked me to step up and that’s what I did and I’m glad that I did. And I hope you’ll agree.”